Supporters of Chicago's Urban Prep West, an all-boys charter school, packed an Illinois State Charter School Commission Hearing in March 2019 where they appealed a Chicago Public Schools' decision to shut them down.
There's been a long-standing battle in education circles in Illinois and nationally around charter schools. Now, that fight is coming to a head in Springfield as legislation aimed at getting rid of a state commission that can overrule a local school board's decision to reject a charter school moves toward passage.
The Democrat-backed bill passed the Senate in April, and a vote is expected in the House before the legislative session ends May 31. Gov. JB Pritzker has said he'll sign the bill, SB1226, if it arrives on his desk. Former Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed a similar bill last year.
This is the latest attempt to eliminate the Illinois State Charter School Commission despite opposition from charter school advocates who say it's needed because local school districts are often hostile to charter schools. These schools are publicly funded but privately operated.
"We have been in Springfield over the past seven or eight years fighting to preserve the commission and really preserve a meaningful merit-based appeal right because what we know in Illinois, given our history, is that sometimes local school districts don't give charter applications a fair shake," said Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.
Since it was created in 2011, the commission has overruled local school districts on the closure or opening of 11 charter schools, including seven in Chicago. This has frustrated local school advocates who say those decisions should be made by the local school boards.
"The state charter school commission is not an elected board by local taxpayers, so they shouldn't be able to make the final decision on whether or not a charter school is open in a local school district," said Sen. Linda Holmes, D-Aurora, the lead sponsor of the bill.
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The Noble Network of Charter Schools is one of several large charter networks in Chicago. It has grown to 18 schools over the last 20 years. As more and more charters have opened, the opposition has grown.
Marc Monaghan/for WBEZ
Charter schools first began opening in Chicago in the late 1990s with little controversy, but as the number of schools grew, so did the opposition, especially as Chicago Public Schools closed schools due to declining enrollment. The vast majority of charter schools are in Chicago, where there are 121 charter campuses.
After years of strong opposition by the Chicago Teachers Union and local school advocates — who argue charter schools siphon kids and money away from local schools — the tide has been turning strongly against charter schools.
This latest salvo against charter schools is raising serious concerns among charter school supporters. "Yes, we are worried," Broy said.
Broy said he sees strong support from mostly Latino and African American families, but charter schools have become "a political football."
"I think there is disconnect between what the communities want and what the political class says about charter schools," he said.
Broy is also in the middle of a funding dispute between charter operators and Chicago Public Schools. The cash-strapped public school district has been pushing charter schools to agree to a formula that could provide fewer dollars.
Recently, the commission overruled two Chicago Board of Education decisions despite strong opposition from district officials.
In March, it gave the green light to Intrinsic Schools, which has one campus on the Northwest Side, to open a new citywide school downtown. It also allowed Urban Prep West, an all-boys school, to stay open next year. The Chicago Board of Education voted against those two schools in December.
Mary Bradley, who directs the CPS Office of Innovation and Incubation, said the downtown area where Intrinsic wants to open a new school is not a high need for students looking for a school. In reference to Urban Prep West, Bradley said the school has been facing enrollment declines, academic challenges and financial issues for several years.
"The district determined that Urban Prep West should be closed following four years of chronic academic underperformance and the school's failure to meet clearly defined performance expectations," Bradley said to the nine-member board of commissioners before they voted 5-2 in support of Urban Prep West.
Illinois State Charter School Commission members consider an appeal by a charter school that the Chicago Board of Education voted to close. The commission has the power to overrule local school board decisions regarding the fate of charter schools. A bill would abolish the commission.
When an appeal comes before the charter school commission, operators have to prove there's a need for their school, that it has community support, promising academics results, solid financials and that it serves at-risk youth.
During the March hearing, it was clear the commission standards were broader and less specific than what CPS uses. Bradley said Urban Prep West did not meet the academic and financial benchmarks laid out in a two-year charter extension CPS gave the struggling Urban Prep West in 2017. But Shenita Johnson, executive director for the commission, said the school met her body's standards.
Johnson argued the school choices near Urban Prep West for its 147 students aren't any better. "It's not responsible to place more than 100 at-risk young men in schools that are not better performing than the school that they are attending today," she said.
She also noted a few areas where Urban Prep West made modest improvements.
Students from Chicago's Urban Prep West charter school attend an Illinois State Charter School Commission hearing in March 2019. They were successful in their fight to keep their school open.
Some of the 11 charter schools that have gone through the appeal route have thrived. Southland College Prep in suburban Richton Park is labeled exemplary by the state, and it has been praised for sending all its seniors to college for six consecutive years.
But other schools like Betty Shabazz International Charter School, Bronzeville Academy Charter School and ACE Amandla, all on Chicago's South Side, are facing academic challenges.
Broy said getting the commission's approval "is not saying that it's a guaranteed improvement — the point is, have they met the statutory framework, do they deserve a chance?"
The schools approved by the commission also have to meet academic benchmarks, Broy added. "If they don't meet those benchmarks, the schools could be closed in the future," he said.
But three years ago, the Chicago Board of Education voted to close Shabazz, Amandla and Bronzeville due to low academic performance — those same schools are still doing poorly academically today. So far, the commission hasn't closed any school it approved.
Sean Denney, a lobbyist with the Illinois Education Association union, said there shouldn't be an appeal route for charter schools closed by a local district.
"If the school board at one time, thought it was important to open up a charter school and then the charter school is performing so poorly that they decided to shut it down, that is clearly a sign that something has gone wrong with the charter school itself," Denney said.
Regarding opening new charter schools, Denny argued it should ultimately be a local school board's decision with support from its community.
If signed into law, SB 1226 will abolish the charter school commission by 2020, ending the appeal route for charter school operators. The 11 commission-approved schools would then be under the Illinois Board of Education.
Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at@WBEZeducation and @AdrianaCardMag.